In her new memoir Friends & Enemies (Pegasus Books), English author and editor Barbara Amiel has had the kind of fairy-tale life a million women would kill for—at least at first glance—hobnobbing with everyone from Henry and Nancy Kissinger to Jayne Wrightsman, Oscar de la Renta, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and even Ghislaine Maxwell since marrying Canadian media and mining tycoon Conrad Black in 1992. But what followed wasn’t so rosy. In 2007, after a lengthy and embarrassing trial, Black was convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice—his old friend President Donald Trump pardoned him in 2019. Amiel has remained steadfastly loyal to her husband, and in this excerpt, she shares the rosier aspects of their early married life together navigating the social scenes in New York, Palm Beach and London. From hosting Princess Diana at her Cottesmore Gardens home in London to couture shopping with André Leon Talley to being told by a real estate developer friend of her husband’s that she wouldn’t be allowed inside the private old-line Bath and Tennis Club because she was Jewish, Amiel’s memoir is a juicy read.
In the below excerpt, Amiel shares stories from her early days as Mrs. Conrad Black learning the socialite ropes.
“I was Mrs. Conrad Black. All auguries pointed to a life of unbridled happiness. “Isn’t it odd,” I said to George Jonas, “that I will actually spend my old age in love and financially secure. Who would have believed after every disaster it would work out? And he’s so wonderful. You’ll love him.” Christ, talk about tempting the gods. I emerged from the secular embrace of Chelsea Old Town Hall with the slug aspects of my former existence gone. No longer a mollusc, I had a permanent home rather than a series of borrowed and temporary hiding places. My husband was neither neurotic nor elderly, not a sadistic sociopath nor a compulsive womanizer with a Big Love approach to marriage—which is only a mere soupçon of the happy relationships I had optimistically and masochistically embraced—but rather the answer to a maiden’s prayer. At forty-seven he was my junior, intellectually far my superior, with all his own teeth, thick hair and a healthy interest in marital relations. He was also rich and Extremely Important, with a company jet. And I adored him. What more could any girl want. Rejoice! Rejoice! as Conrad would say. I did, although I had the sensation that not all the people that knew me were quite so exhilarated….
As I settled into my new position, I began to get oxygen deprivation at the thought of the steep domestic mountain in front of me. So long as I was out of society, I had no need to trump it. But now, thrown into a maelstrom of entertaining and being entertained, the old competitive instinct kicked in. I was consumed by fear of not doing it right. I was no bloody savage, but now I was gathering up homes of monumental size in London, Palm Beach and Toronto, all requiring “decoration.” They were not grand by the standards I was about to see—Blenheim, of course; Lily Safra’s Villa Leopolda on the French Riviera, bought from Gianni Agnelli, with a special tower just to store her auction catalogues; and Gloria von Thurn und Taxis hanging out in her Schloss St. Emmeram unable to count how many hundreds of rooms were in her Regensburg digs—but for me, my new homes were stupefying. Having not decorated let alone renovated one room in my entire life, this would all have been hilarious and a women’s mag “growth experience” had I not taken it so seriously….
Like a creeping mold, my houses, particularly the London home, began to need “staff.” This is one area where you either have natural talent or not, and it has little to do with upbringing. (My sister is brilliant at this.) Conrad preferred to do business lunches in the small dining room that seated six to eight people comfortably—although once again in his enthusiasm, when we were having a lunch that included Gianni Agnelli, he couldn’t resist inviting extras, and my chair was wedged up the chimney. Now that I was in the entertainment business, I needed to employ butlers as well as the laundress and cleaning ladies. The cartel of domestic employment agencies kicked in, and the résumés and interviews began. Staff who had Buckingham Palace on their résumé really impressed me, until I discovered that this was a false lead. The Queen having so large a staff, each member does one thing, and they are lost if multitasking. They all seemed to know one another or have slept with each other and no one had a good thing to say about another ex-staffer. The romantic politics were as tricky as the household ones. Then there were the graduates of the buttling schools, most notably the academy of Ivor Spencer. In the mid-nineties when I was hunting for butlers, this was still a relatively small field. London was not yet the top choice for the thick wallets of foreign grandees looking for a friendly tax shelter, especially the newly made Russian billionaires. The best butlers moved round and round among familiar homes—the Lloyd Webbers’ to the Schwarzenbachs’ to the Gert-Rudolf Flicks’—where knowledgeable chatelaines whipped them into shape. The very best of course stayed with their English employers in their London and country homes and had no desire to work for “new people,” let alone Canadians.”